Justification before God
Is by Faith Alone,
Completely Apart from Works
By Zane C. Hodges1
The result of the death of Christ on the cross is that God can be righteous and justify the person who has faith in Jesus. The English necessarily obscures an obvious Greek word play, since the Greek words for righteous (dikaion) and justify (dikaiounta) are cognates joined in Paul's sentence by the simple and (kai). God, says Paul, is both righteous and righteous-fier.2 This simple assertion is actually the fundamental core of Pauline theology.
Throughout the centuries of Christian history, thinkers of every persuasion have wrestled with Paul's basic ideas. [An excellent, up-to-date treatment of this long-running discussion is available now in Stephen Westerholm's Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Eerdmans, 2004).] But at bottom, Paul believed two very basic things. These were: (1) God, apart from man's works, justifies the one who believes in Jesus; and (2) the cross is the basis for this justification and shows it to be a fully righteous act.
Here it is important to say that for Paul these are absolute realities totally independent of anything man does before or after faith. There is no basis whatsoever in Paul's letters to connect human works with justification by faith no matter when these works are performed. Whether done before or after conversion, they remain works (i.e., erga = "deeds" or "actions"). The distinction drawn by some writers between "works done to attain favor with God" and "works done out of faith or gratitude" is non-existent in the Pauline material. This alleged distinction is a theological fiction.
For Paul, "good works," whether done under or apart from the Mosaic Law, cannot contribute to our justification. To say that somehow they do contribute would really amount to a denial of the simple fact that God justifies the person who has faith in Jesus. In that case God would be justifying only the person who has faith plus works, not a person who just has faith. No matter how this idea is articulated, it contradicts Paul's fundamental idea that justification is "apart from works" (v 28; see 4:6). Furthermore, to say that "our (post-conversion) works" somehow vindicate God's justification is a denial of the adequacy of the cross for that purpose. The famous statement that "we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone" is a Reformation idea, not a Pauline one. This idea can be found nowhere in Paul's writings.
To be greatly lamented is the sad fact that, although Reformation soteriology denied good works entrance through the front door, good works were often reintroduced through the back door. The resultant theology is hard to distinguish, except semantically, from Roman Catholic theology. The synergism of faith and works in salvation is differently expressed in Protestant and Catholic theology, but its fundamental character is essentially the same: namely, no true justification without good works. Paul knew nothing of this.
Of course, theologians have spilled a tremendous amount of ink trying to show that works have some fundamental role in Pauline soteriology. But in Paul's writings works do not have any connection whatsoever with the truth of justification. For Paul grace and works are opposites. He will later say in this very epistle: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer by works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is by works, it is no longer grace, otherwise work is no longer work" (Rom 11:6). This is perfectly plain, and theologians have wasted their time trying to qualify, revise, or reinterpret Paul's lucid concept. According to Paul, when you mix faith and works you change the basic nature of both.
Paul concludes the long Greek sentence that began in v 23 with the words the person who has faith in Jesus (ton ek pisteōs Iēsou; lit. = "the one of [by] faith in Jesus"). Here for the first time since 1:17 we meet Paul's frequent phrase ek pisteōs (see also in Rom 3:30; 4:16 [2x]; 5:1; 9:30; 10:6; 14:23 [2x]). All the other instances in Romans (with the exception of 14:23) use the phrase in reference to righteousness or justification coming by means of faith. This suggests a second look at its usage in this verse.
In my translation I have paraphrased the Greek article (ton) with the words the person who and the Greek ek by has. But the Greek is perhaps more likely to mean something like the by faith in Jesus person. In that case the Greek article is a functional ellipsis of the idea "the person who receives this justifying action" (cf. dikaiounta). Paul's brevity at this point is due to his intention of explicating this idea very shortly.
It is noteworthy that in this direct reference to faith in Jesus (Iēsou is an objective genitive) Paul uses only the human name (in v 21 he uses "Jesus Christ"). But for Paul, of course, both the words Lord and Christ were still titles, the latter one indicating Messiahship. The distinctive feature of NT evangelization was that it called on both Jews and Gentiles to exercise faith in the person named Jesus. (Note precisely this idea in John 20:30-31). After the coming of Christ, it was no longer adequate to believe simply in a Messiah whose identity was unknown. On the contrary, the Christian proclamation was that the Messiah (= Christ) had now appeared and that His name was Jesus (hence "Jesus Christ" [v 21] = "Jesus Messiah"). Henceforth justifying faith found its true focus, not in an unnamed promised Messiah, but in Jesus of Nazareth. It is in fact "the name of Jesus" that is above every name and to which every knee will someday bow (Phil 2:9-11). Therefore, too, "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
The righteousness of God, therefore, that is now "manifested" (v 21) in the promised Christ, comes by faith in a man named Jesus.
1Zane had nearly completed a commentary on Romans before he went to be with the Lord in November of 2008. This material is from that commentary. GES hopes to have that commentary in print by the April 11-14, 2011 GES Annual Conference.
2Possibly another way to bring this across in English would be something like so that He may be righteous and may declare righteous the person who has faith in Jesus.